DAVID GRACE AGAINST THE DOMINION POST
Case Number: 2459
Council Meeting: SEPTEMBER 2015
Verdict: Not Upheld with Dissent
Publication: The Dominion Post
Balance, Lack Of
Comment and Fact
Jane Schaverien and David Grace have complained about The Dominion Posts’s front page article of July 3 (covering the entire front page, “goodie boxes” excepted) ‘What DOC worker told a detective’. Ms Schaverien’s complaint specifies 1 Accuracy, fairness and balance and 11 Photographs and Graphics. Mr Grace’s refers to both 1 Accuracy, fairness and balance and 4 Comment and Fact.
The article relates to the disappearance of Wellington physiotherapist Kaye Stewart, who hasn’t been seen since she disappeared on a walk in Rimutaka Forest Park in June, 2005. The story followed renewed coverage of the case in May, when a runner was lost and then found in the same park, and June, the 10th anniversary of Mrs Stewart’s disappearance.
The angle of this story is that an OIA request has produced a transcript of a police interview with DOC worker Gary Bak in 2009, the last person to see Mrs Stewart, in which police suggested Mr Bak had accidentally hit Mrs Stewart with his quad bike. It reports that Mr Bak denied the theory then, and still does so. Police and Mr Bak refuse to comment on the theory, but police say they are investigating new leads.
Ms Schaverien complains that the presentation of the story suggests (a) the story contains new information; (b) that Mr Bak is in some way connected with Mrs Stewart’s disappearance; and (c) “police are investigating Mr Bak anew”. The front page display, notably “the juxtaposition of a large image of Mr Bak against the image of the missing woman implies” that Mr Bak hit Mrs Stewart with his quad bike. This, she says, is poor and cruel journalism. In two follow-up comments, she stresses that people often only glance at headlines and pictures and in this case the layout is “misleading” and doesn’t tell the same story as the full article.
Mr Grace is concerned that the article “points the finger” at Mr Bak, with the suggestion that he is culpable for the death or disappearance of Kaye Stewart in 2005. “An incident in which he was cleared of blame has been resurrected and lavishly publicised”. He takes issue specifically with the size of the photograph and says “no provision” was made for Mr Bak to respond. In his final comment he adds the point that newspapers are often read quickly and superficially and it’s “the general impression that counts”, hence his objection to the “location, type size, illustrations etc”.
Mr Grace is less clear about why he thinks the story fails under Principle 4, but describes the photo of Mr Bak on his bike as “unspoken comment” and in his reply to the newspaper’s response, insists the story “is not news”.
Dominion Post Editor-in-Chief, Bernadette Courtney, denies the article is misleading in anyway. The police theory revealed by the transcript is significant and new. She explains that
police are investigating new leads as a result of the paper’s recent coverage and that “the article could not be clearer that none of this fresh information relates to Mr Bak”.
However she argues it is significant that the police “rightly or wrongly” still suspected Mr Bak more than three years after Mrs Stewart’s disappearance and tested his DNA and the bach where he lived for blood.
On balance and fairness the editor-in-chief stressed that the article was based on Mr Bak’s answers to police and he was contacted by the paper for comment. His continued denial was reported, as was the fact he refused further comment. The story also noted the coroner’s verdict that while police suspected foul play, all the “persons of interest” were alibied or eliminated from suspicion by the police.
The story also says that while police plan to re-interview some people from their earlier enquiries, the fresh leads do not relate to Mr Bak. The editor-in-chief says she finds it “irksome” that while Ms Schaverien and Mr Grace both read the article and concluded Mr Bak had nothing to do with Mrs Stewart’s disappearance, “they do not credit other readers with the intelligence to form exactly the same opinion”.
On photographs and graphics the editor argues they must be viewed in conjunction with the story. The photograph of Mr Bak on his quad bike is relevant as he used it that day and it played a part in the police’s theory. It was not meant to infer guilt.
On Comment and Fact, the editor says this is clearly a news story and does not understand what Mr Grace means by “unspoken comment”. Regardless, she disputes his inference that this is anything other than news.
The editor also notes that neither Mr Bak nor anyone acting on his behalf have complained. Rather than vilifying Mr Bak, the story suggests police may have wasted time and effort on a fruitless line of inquiry, and this could be why the case remains unresolved.
Discussion and Decision
While the article relates to a ten year-old case, the previously unreported police theory that Mr Bak accidentally hit Mrs Stewart with his bike is undoubtedly news and of public interest. Indeed, the Council notes that Mrs Stewart’s family took part in at least two stories in the previous months in the hope that the public would be reminded of Mrs Stewart’s disappearance and would come forward with more information. The story is clearly presented as news, the reporter offers no opinion on the facts reported and those are reported accurately. The photo of Mr Bak on his quad bike is directly related to the story angle.
The complaint against Principle 4 is not upheld.
Much of the disagreement stems not from the content of the article, but the way it is presented and told. In particular its prominent use of the photo and the impression a reader would get from a glance at the front page. That touches on Principle 11’s call for editors to take care in the selection and treatment of photographs. The editor-in chief, unfortunately, does not address the size issue.
The size of the photo is remarkable and disproportionate, especially given it’s of a man who the story reports has been eliminated from police inquiries. This caused some disquiet amongst the Council. The layout could lead to misunderstanding from people who did not read the story carefully and risked implying something the story did not say. It came close to, as Mr Grace said, pointing the finger at Mr Bak.
Both of the complainants fear that anyone glancing at the page or not reading the full story would get a misleading impression of the story. While that argument earned some sympathy, on balance the Council agreed newspapers cannot be held responsible, as the complainants suggest, for the inferences readers draw.
The complaint against Principle 11 is not upheld.
On the issue of fairness and balance (accuracy is not in question), Mr Grace is in error when he says “no provision” was made for Mr Bak to reply. He was contacted and quoted. It’s notable too that this was one of several stories the paper produced on this cold case in cooperation with Mrs Stewart’s family and police.
It’s also important to appreciate that the paper reports in just the second paragraph that Mr Bak “strongly denied” the quad bike accident theory.
Having said that, it’s not ideal that the crucial information that the coroner had reported that all “persons of interest” either had alibis or had been eliminated from police inquiries and the previously unreported news that the police’s fresh information, as the editor says, “does not relate to Mr Bak” is withheld until the final paragraphs of the story.
Publications need to be aware that the Press Council will view an article in context which will include accompanying photographs. This is necessary to reflect the overall tenor of what is being communicated. In this case the photograph was very large and bordered on breaching the need for fairness and balance. In this instance the Council accepts that the size of the photograph only just fails to breach our principles
The complaint against Principle 1 is not upheld.
Dissent: One member disagreed with the decision on Principle 1, accuracy, fairness and balance. John Roughan believed the presentation of the story was so far out of proportion to the news value of its facts that it was grossly unfair to Mr Bak.
Press Council members considering the complaint were Sir John Hansen, Liz Brown, Chris Darlow, Peter Fa’afiu, Jenny Farrell, Sandy Gill, John Roughan, Marie Shroff, Mark Stevens and Tim Watkin.